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Africa

Nigeria scales back troops in Mali

Faced with a domestic Islamist insurgency, Nigeria is planning to withdraw some of its troops from international peacekeeping missions in Mali – just ahead of an election – and from Sudan's Darfur region.

The announcement of the withdrawal, which came shortly before elections in Mali on July 28, was made at a summit of West African leaders in the Nigerian capital Abuja, chaired by Ivory Coast President Alassane Outttara. He said the decision had been taken "because of the domestic situation in Nigeria."

It was not immediately clear how much of Nigeria's 1,200-strong contingent from international peacekeeping missions in Mali and Sudan's Darfur region would be pulled out.

Nigerian military sources indicated that most of the troops returning home would be relieving forces fighting an insurgency in northern Nigeria. They had complained that they hadn't been rotated for months.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. (Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

President Goodluck Jonathan declaring a state of emergency in three Nigerian states in mid-May

President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northern Nigerian states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states on May 14, ordering in extra troops to try to crush the militant Islamist sect Boko Haram.

Returning from Mali and Sudan

Some of the Nigerian troops returning home would be from the 12,600 African troops who are in Mali under a UN peacekeeping mandate. They are taking over from French forces. France rushed 4,500 troops to Mali in January to prevent Islamist extremists, who had seized the north of the country, from advancing to the capital in the south.

The UN peacekeeping department said Nigeria would also be withdrawing some of its troops from the UN-African Union forces UNAMID mission in Sudan's Western Dafur region.   

UNAMID has over 19,000 soldiers and police. Violence has surged since January as government forces, rebels and Arab tribes, armed by Khartoum early in the conflict, fight over resources and land. Peacekeepers are often attacked when they try to find out what is happening on the ground.

Elections in Mali

The presence of the UN troops in Mali is being seen as crucial for the elections at the end of the month, which it is hoped will restore democratic governance to the country after a military coup in March 2012.

French President Francois Hollande (C) with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (R) and Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore. (Photo: REUTERS/Laurent Dubrule (BELGIUM)

Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore (left) promised "credible polls" at a donors' conference

Alasdair Reid, intelligence analyst with AKE Group in London, said Nigeria has promised to pull out in accordance with the usual UN regulations which means they should have a number of weeks, if not a month, before these pull-outs actually occur.

"Physically on the ground there won't be a huge amount of difference. In terms of the confidence, the timing could have been a little bit better," he added.     

The main problem facing the Mali election is the slim chance of a decent turnout, which is seen as essential if the election result is to be broadly accepted in the divided country. Other issues include the hundreds of thousands of displaced Malians whose participation in the poll is in doubt and the distribution of voting cards, which may not be completed in time.   

Some observers have warned that a botched election could be more damaging to Mali's fragile roadmap to peace than no election at all.

But Mali's partners are evidently linking elections to aid.  At a special donor conference in Brussels in May, Mali secured pledges of 3.2 billion euros ($4.2 billion). In return interim president Dioncounda Traore vowed to hold "transparent, open, honest and credible" polls.

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